Jonathan Diaz sits with hands crossed in the Tufts Granoff Music Center.

From Tufts to Community Advocate

Jonathan Diaz is an agent of change on campus and beyond in his work as a master’s student in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning

By Kristin Livingston, A05

For most graduate students, simply being a student is a full-time job. For Jonathan Diaz, M.A. 2016, it’s been a launch pad to opportunity and a successful career.

As a master’s student in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP), his home department has supported and sparked every step.

When Diaz was an undergraduate studying environmental sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he says he learned the design, science, and engineering behind resources that could change the landscape of a community, like a water treatment system. “But we were never told why it was necessary to build it or what the social implications would be.”

The human element is what Diaz appreciates most about his experience in UEP. “I came to Tufts looking for a social lens,” he says, “and I’ve been able to study human behavior and patterns, the dynamics of cities and developments that build upon my technical background.”

Diaz has done just that, serving as a fellow with the Department of Energy in summer 2015 and as a Clean Energy Fellow with the Massachusetts Sierra Club in the fall, helping to identify opportunities for community solar projects, particularly for low-income communities and communities of color.

On campus, he was involved with the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life. He reestablished the Order of Omega, a Greek Honor Society, bringing in 27 new members in one year. He also co-manages an international exchange program through The Talloires Network at Tufts in conjunction with the Autonomous University of Spain. He even wrote poetry for the course Economics for Policy and Planning Analysis for a project titled, Imagination Economics: Innovations in Creative Learning; the goal was to create and broaden learning styles in the class for which he is a graduate teaching assistant this spring semester.

Poetry on Economic Inequality

By Jonathan Diaz

I lived in fear —
Like debt,
Like unaffordable housing,
Like unemployment,
Like inequality

and after hundreds of thousands of dollars
spent on education

Mark me —
Mobile,
High-skilled,
Potential for high-salary,

 

As I reflect on where I came from
and where I am today

Who am I?

Problematic

Conflicted

I live in fear —
Like code switching
Like gentrifying
Like can no longer relate
Like forgetting my roots

 

In the Greater Boston area, Diaz worked with refugee populations, helping them to assimilate to the culture, housing, and economic system. And he conducted analysis for the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston. “Being able to help in those spaces was important to me as a person of color,” he says. A first-generation college graduate from Hartford, Conn., Diaz understands the hurdles of discrimination. Supporting opportunity—and taking advantage of those opportunities he feels lucky to have—are important to him.

His efforts earned him a Gerald Gill Fellowship for being an ambassador of research that inspires fellow students to think critically about race and democracy, and to become an agent of change. He was also awarded the Presidential Award for Citizenship and Public Service from President Monaco.

“It meant a lot,” Diaz says. “The environment at Tufts is conscious and very present in what is occurring throughout society, not only domestically but globally.” 

Diaz had the chance to bring his studies to life—in Technicolor—thousands of miles from Medford. During his first year in the program, he spent the winter break in Kerala, India with the University of Iowa to conduct research on sustainable development and low-cost housing. “It was an incredible experience,” he says. “It redefined my perspective with regard to poverty and the use of the word ‘slum.’”

Diaz says in the West we talk about social indicators that measure happiness and well-being. But when he came face-to-face with the reality of life in Kerala, “you throw that out window. The people there were happy, not so easily categorized or fit into our standards. There is a human element that can’t be ignored—one I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t had the chance to conduct research abroad.”

People, a community—these are vital to Diaz. His thesis rallies around the idea of working together to reach a common goal. “It’s in the realm of capacity-building and collective decision-making in sustainable development,” he says. “How can private, public, and community entities come together to make decisions around development?”

When Diaz joins the National Nuclear Security Administration for the U.S. Department of Energy in June, he will work at the heart of one the world’s greatest issues: non-proliferation and long-term planning analysis of critical infrastructure. Tufts has prepared him well.

“This experience has been incredible through a combination of many things,” he says, “the curriculum, the professors, the support staff, in addition to the internships and volunteer experiences throughout Boston—so many things that I feel have led to professional development and personal growth. And the intimate UEP program itself,” he adds.

The UEP program has provided a unique opportunity for Diaz: the chance to study and effect change in so many social and policy areas. The opportunity to work with immigrants and Bostonians on a one-to-one level. The hours volunteering to better the Tufts community. All of this, as well as the time spent with inspiring peers and professors will, no doubt, aid him well in Washington and beyond.